Thursday, November 24, 2016

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

              A Flashy But Just Functional Exercise in Re-Potter-ing

                                                        Review by Ken Burke

Take care, curious readers, for plot spoilers gallop rampantly throughout the Two Guys’ insightful reviews.  Therefore, be warned, beware, and read on when you’re ready to be transported to … wherever we end up.  Please protect your eyes from the dazzling brilliance.

               Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
              (David Yates)   

Newt Scamander, a British wizard, comes to 1926 NYC on his way to Arizona, but through faulty clamps on his magical suitcase various amazing animals escape into the city requiring him to round them up again with an attempt at minimal damage while facing harsh obstacles from both an anti-magic human society and his own secluded wizards, angry that his clumsiness has created havoc.
What Happens: In 1926, British wizard Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) has been traveling the world capturing exotic beasts to bring back to his Ministry of Magic (shown in great detail in the previous Harry Potter movies [various directors, 2001-2011*], adapted from the novels of J.K. Rowling) for study, although one of them—the enormous Thunderbird—he’s returning to its home in Arizona (I didn’t catch the details; maybe he rescued it from some sort of zoo or whatever) so Newt’s arrived in NYC on his way to the American Southwest (as I’m not that well-versed in Rowling’s Wizarding World lore, I think, from my sparse memories of the earlier movies, that these magical folks don’t transport themselves over physical distances all that often, especially when they’re operating in what we perceive as our world [they call us Muggles in Great Britain, No-Majs {as in “no magic”} in the U.S.]—nor do I remember much travel on flying broomsticks in the … Potter stories except in those Quidditch matches—so Newt’s journey leads him to use conventional ship and train transportation).  However, even though his small suitcase (or large briefcase; you could argue it either way) opens down into a huge space where the various creatures can exist in approximations of their natural habitats (a vast interior magically carried along with the valise, not a specific lower location in our phenomenal existence) the latches are prone to popping open so he’s soon frantically trying to chase down an escaped Niffler (a platypus-like-animal obsessed with 
sparkly things, especially jewels and gold coins), leading Newt to a bank where he runs into, then mistakenly-exchanges suitcases with Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), a bored cannery worker who’s unsuccessfully trying to get a loan to start his own bakery.  Before Newt can set any of this right, though, he’s arrested by Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) of the Magical Congress of the United States of America (MACUSA—hidden, by some magical cloaking action I assume, within the Woolworth Building) for being an unregistered wizard in the U.S., plus bringing in the beasts.  Her haughty superiors have more important matters to consider, though, because mysterious, disruptive activities are occurring all around the baffled city.

*If you want extensive, documented information on this earlier-released-movie-series—although set chronologically later (in the 1990s) than Fantastic Beasts …, which is officially a prequel to the Potter stories—you can consult this site, although this fandom site (where you may have to take a quick survey to access it, although you can probably skip the survey) summarizes various Potter media items you might want to own.  (But 
for which, unfortunately, I get no kickback at all, damn it!)  However, if you really want to lose yourself in the Harry Potter universe, then you should go here (even though the Wikipedia overlords seem to feel considerably more editing is needed, despite all of the impressive citations), maybe even follow up on enormous details about the Ministry of Magic (also well-documented).

 A high-ranking American wizard, Percival Graves (Colin Farrell), thinks that these destructive displays are the result of Obscurus activity, coming from a dangerous force which is unleashed by the magical children who desperately try to hide their powers from oppressive No-Majs, especially those of the New Salem Philanthropic Society, headed by grim, uptight, abusive-to-her-adopted-children Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton), but her scary, oddball son, Credence (Ezra Miller), is recruited by Graves to secretly find the Obscurus host.  More trouble then arises when some additional creatures make their escape from Newt’s luggage, in the process causing massive damage to Kowalski’s tenement, which leads Newt and Tina to the wreckage, followed by all 3 of them going to Tina’s place where they meet her mind-reading sister, Queenie (Alison Sudol), who takes a liking to Jacob, a recruit to the cause after Newt gives him a tour of the hidden depths of the suitcase.  Many active scenes later most of the escaped creatures are back in place (including the enormous, rhino-like Erumpent, who takes a liking to Kowalski) but tension between the magic-wielders and the No-Majs has further escalated with the death at a public event of Sen. Harry Shaw Jr. (Josh Cowdery), son of influential-newspaper-publisher Shaw Sr. (Jon Voight); when Tina brings Newt and the suitcase to the MACUSA headquarters as ordered (further attempting to get back in their good graces after having been demoted for past transgressions), Graves assumes the murder was the result of one of Newt’s creatures with our hapless wizard supposedly in league with evil-wizard-on-the-lam Gellert Grindelwald so he orders the suitcase to be destroyed with everything in it, Jacob’s memory to be obliviated (purged), and both Newt and Tina to be immediately executed 
(I once lived in NYC before the Rudy Giuliani regime, but even he wasn’t that vicious).  Through quick-thinking by all involved, our 4 protagonists escape, even as more chaos is occurring at the Barebone home where Credence finds a wand belonging to sister Modesty (Faith Wood-Blagrove); Mary Lou’s about to dish out her usual punishment when the evil Obscurus manifests, killing her.

 Graves arrives but refuses to teach magic to Credence as promised, leading to the weird boy revealing that he’s the Obscurus-host which he then unleashes on the city in his anger.  Horror descends on NYC as Newt and Tina confront Credence in a subway tunnel, trying to calm him, although with no help from Graves.  The other MUCUSA officials arrive to find that Graves has incited the full release of the Obscurus in revenge for the group giving more attention to the troubled-needs of the No-Majs than to themselves.  In the various ensuing wand-fights, Credence is seemingly destroyed along with the Obscurus (but a tiny segment escapes) as Newt subdues Graves only to find out that he’s actually Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) in disguise.  The No-Majs have seen plenty of magic by now so Newt saves the day by deciding to release the Thunderbird into the sky carrying an obliviation potion that’s spread by an ongoing rainstorm (another of the bird’s powers) over the city, effectively erasing human memories of magic even as the wizards walk through the streets restoring what had been damaged (the parallel universes of the Avengers and the emerging Justice League could have used something like that to rebuild their NYC and Metropolis after recent destructive-battles rather than using the slow-moving-bureaucracies of the various Depts. of Public Works or the yet-to-be-fulfilled-job-creation-promises of President-Elect Trump).  As it all wraps up, Jacob voluntarily goes out into the memory-erasing-rain, even as it takes him away from Queenie, Newt boards a boat for England with his suitcase better protected against unintentional openings but makes it clear that the mutual attraction between him and Tina will lead to a future meeting (we have 4 sequels to go), Jacob now has some valuable eggs from Newt to use as collateral for his bakery which is a huge success (with pastries shaped like Newt’s creatures, although he doesn’t know why) leading Queenie to visit one day as he shows emerging signs of remembering her.

So What? While I’ve quite enjoyed watching the various Harry Potter and … movies (there've been 8 so far; however, given the potential-income-stream after a couple more of these Fantastic Beasts … entries have whipped up a related-form of Potter-mania into a frenzy again I wouldn’t be surprised to see many of the original Hogwarts cast under heavy old-age-make-up doing another round in something like Harry Potter and the Government Dole [and I don’t mean a monthly shipment of pineapples]), I could have easily been just as satisfied with only 3 or 4 of them (which would have compressed the original print and celluloid output [and Rowling’s considerable financial windfall from all of the aspects of her media-empire], but for me that’s still a hell of a lot better than bloating 1 reasonably-sized-book into 3 movies as Peter Jackson [and his distribution moguls] found necessary to do with his Hobbit series [An Unexpected Journey {2012; review in our December 20, 2012 posting}, The Desolation of Smaug {2013; review in our December 17, 2013 posting}, The Battle of the Five Armies {2014; review in our December 23, 2014 posting}]) so you can easily see that I’m a mere No-Maj (as an American, although with every Trump Cabinet recommendation I’m giving further consideration to moving next door to some friends in London, especially given the exchange-rate of dollar to pound after the Brits own ill-chosen-election) with no grand investment in Rowling’s “Wizarding World,” having never read any of her books nor feeling any great compulsion to see 4 more of these Scamander tales (the 1st published [2001] under his name, just describing the various beasts, verifying its existence as a notation in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone [Chris Columbus, 2001; Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone for us U.S. readers/viewers, as I guess we’re just too fast-result-focused—again, note our recent Presidential election—to care too much about philosophy of any kind]) as the money-tap continues to flow for Rowling and Warner Bros. (possibly soon to be part of AT&T, already getting enough of my monthly money anyway so maybe they'll just charge me in advance for these next cycles of Newt-tickets).

 However, there are ginormous numbers of people worldwide who’re eager for such material (already verified by the huge global take that Fantastic Beasts … has pulled in after a short time in release, a total of about $219.9 million and steadily climbing, adding to the huge haul of the previous Harry Potter movies, resulting in a worldwide gross of over $7.7 billion,* making Rowling’s adaptations the 2nd-highest-grossing-franchise/series in movie history, behind only the ever-growing-behemoth known as [now Disney’s] the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which has taken in a worldwide gross of about $10.8 billion thus far, with many more entries in the pipeline [although the source cited below notes that when adjusted for inflation the 24 “official” James Bond movies would be in the series #1 slot]) so I wish them well in their wait for the next Fantastic Beasts … installment while I acknowledge that watching this latest offering from J.K. Rowling Inc. (she even wrote the screenplay this time, a first for her) made for a pleasant afternoon but will not cross my memory again when awards-nomination-time rolls around except in the area of Best Visual Effects, which were quite impressive, as they always have been in these wizard/witch/monster-stories.  Certainly Oscar-winning-actor (for The Theory of Everything [James Marsh, 2014; review in our November 19, 2014 posting]) Eddie Redmayne’s a plus here as well—
as he would be in anything—along with a fine supporting cast (some of whom we’re very likely to see again, given this episode's wrap-up foreshadowing, but possibly not all of them as the global locations are supposedly going to shift around in later plots), but maybe I’ve been Potter-ed enough already to not be as inspired as I might be by what races around on screen in Fantastic Beasts ….

*Disregarding any of those occasional concerns about Wikipedia accuracy—given that the site I’m about to recommend is as thoroughly-referenced as a history Ph.D. dissertation—I’ll refer you to 
here for an extensive accounting of not only the most monetarily-successful-movie-series but also (based on worldwide-income-numbers whenever available) the overall highest-grossers, then the highest-grossers adjusted for inflation (as of 2014; with minimum crossover from the previous list), highest-grossers by year of release, and a chronological timeline of the highest-grossers (The Birth of a Nation [D.W. Griffith, 1915] being replaced by Gone with the Wind [Victor Fleming, 1939], etc.).

Bottom Line 
Final Comments: The overall cinema-critical-community wasn’t all that fantastically-overwhelmed by what they encountered with Fantastic Beasts … either, yielding a 77% cluster of positive reviews surveyed by the folks at Rotten Tomatoes plus a cumulative 66% score at Metacritic (compared to a 96% positive at RT, 87% at MC for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows—Part 2 [Yates, 2011]; you'll find more details on the current movie in the Related Links area farther below), with both of those Fantastic Beast … cumulative-results indicating to me what I’m saying to you, essentially that this new Rawling story works well enough as a fine diversionary-adventure but just seems to repeat what we’re already explored in depth except with a slightly-older-protagonist (who doesn’t have a circle of sidekicks—yet?) ultimately facing a villain who’s now already fully-embodied, whose name can be spoken (but with a sneer, if you like).  In retrospect, my chief complain—aside from all of the obviously-played-for-built-in-audience-satisfaction/ticket-money-generating-content—comes from the introduction of Newt: For a wizard he’s horribly unaware of the fragile nature of his suitcase latches plus I’m certainly not clear why if he’s traveling anyway to get to NYC he didn’t first go to England to unload all of those other creatures before heading off to Arizona to return the majestic Thunderbird to its ancestral home.  Of course, 2 obvious answers emerge: (1) For some reason in the hallowed Ministry of Magic there’s only 1 of these extensive-suitcases so if he returned home to allow the other wizards to study his exotic collection he’d have no way to transport the big bird; (2) Much more importantly, if he didn’t bring this entire menagerie to NYC then the entire premise of the movie collapses (along with all those ticket sales) so, OK, Burke, just shut up and go with the flow!

 Admittedly, the flow is active with hardly a chance to catch your breath from 1 frantic scene to the next; the 3-D version that I saw makes decent-enough use of this more-complex-technology (especially in the scenes when we first wander around the halls of the MACUSA, where we find typewriters busily at work with no typists needed); and the titular-fantastic-beasts are truly wondrous—from the tiny twig-like Bowtruckle (adept at picking locks, thereby saving Newt by opening his handcuffs as he and Tina are on their way to execution) to the snake-bird-whatever-it’s-called-thing that changes size to fit its surroundings so that it can instantly go from enormous to small enough to fit into a teapot.  In honor of these highly-creative beasts, I’ve chosen as my Musical Metaphor (to respond to my experience with this movie through the artistry of another medium) the Simon and Garfunkel song “At the Zoo” (from the 1968 Bookends album) at RKI-S8 (with animal-illustrations accompanying the lyrics) to celebrate another collection of unusual beasts (at least as anthropomorphized in Simon’s lyrics) but all in the daylight of the Bronx Zoo (rather than being contained far below the surface of a magical suitcase), where you can encounter the “insincere” giraffes, the “skeptical” orangutans, the “missionary” antelopes, and other variations on what you might find in George Orwell’s’ Animal Farm (1945).  However, if you’d prefer a live performance by this celebrated duo, here's one from the equally-celebrated 1967 Monterey Pop Festival (no video, though, just an accompanying photo) where after that number Simon tells a story about how he was inspired to write “The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy).”  (On the 1966 Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme album—sorry, but you’ll have to look that one up for yourself; or will you, given the “groovy” happy NYC ending we get in Fantastic Beasts … should I play this one too?  OK, here it is, from some Big Apple concert, but not the famous one in Central Park.)

 But, with all of this great musical energy—plus the strong global-embrace of this movie along with the promise of many more of these Fabulous Beasts and Where to Find Them tales in the worksI can only conjure up 3 measly stars?  Disappointed as you might be, my answer is “yes.”  Maybe when additional … Beasts … episodes have come to full-light, with all of this prequelling-focus on Newt finally leading us back to the threshold of the already-established-domain of Harry, et al. I’ll be better able to accept this active-yet-a-bit-thin-origin-story (unless Ms. Rowling keeps pushing us further back into the ancient wizardry-annals) as an effective element within a much larger, successful narrative arc (just as I've come to find Star Wars: Episode I—The Phantom Menace [George Lucas, 1999; review in our February 11, 2012 posting] to be a reasonably-effective-launching pad for the saga of the Skywalkers, despite the critical scoffing at the time of its release [RT, 55% positive, MC 51%]), but for now, despite the beasts being fantastic (and enjoying every aspect of Redmayne’s characterization) I’m not yet convinced that I need to see where to find further manifestations of this extension of Potter-mania.
Short Takes
 If you're lucky enough to be near a 4K-restoration-screening of Tampopo (Juzo Itami, 1985), now celebrating just over 31 years in existence (released in Japan in 1985, the U.S. in 1987), I heartily encourage you to go see it (if you’re in my area it’s at the Opera Plaza Cinemas in San Francisco, Shattuck Cinemas in Berkeley), especially on this Thanksgiving weekend so devoted to a focus on food anyway (which may be the saving grace for families that don’t want to talk politics at this time—I’ve read several accounts of various folks choosing not to participate at all in holiday gatherings this year because the talk gets too aggressive pro and con about Donald Trump—so maybe the solution is just to have another helping until everyone’s too full to verbalize).  Tampopo is a creative comedy with some serious touches, mostly about a young widow trying to make a living for herself and her son running a ramen noodle shop in Japan, helped out by a pair of friendly truck drivers and their associates; however, there are several marvelous side-stories, all centered on food that manage to find comedy in oddball-scenes such as a woman rising from her deathbed to fix her family one last meal, a woman determined to squeeze the fruit in a grocery store, and a gangster shot down by rivals whose last words to his lover are about a way to make exquisite sausages 
(I may be wrong, but this last one seems to me to be a twisted homage to the end of Breathless [Jean-Luc Godard, 1960, a 5-star-film if there ever was one).  If Tampopo’s not playing in your neighborhood (likely; I’m sure it’s in very limited re-release), do yourself a favor (as long as you can “stomach” reading subtitles) and find it on video.  If this were an actual review, I’d easily award Tampopo its own 5 stars (RT gives it 100% positive reviews, topping their 97% for Breathless), but, I admit, I’ve seen it a lot over the years and have a deep fondness for its eclectic approach.
Related Links Which You Might Find Interesting:
We encourage you to visit the summary of Two Guys reviews for our past posts.*  Overall notations for this blog—including Internet formatting craziness beyond our control—may be found at our Two Guys in the Dark homepage If you’d like to Like us on Facebook please visit our Facebook page. We appreciate your support whenever and however you can offer it!

*We’re sorry to say that a Google software glitch causes every Two Guys in the Dark posting prior to August 26, 2016 to have an inaccurate (dead) link to the Summary page, but there are too many of them to go back and fix them all.  From 8/26/16 on this link is accurate, with hopefully not too much confusion caused by this latest stupid snafu from the Alphabet overlords’ programming problems.

Here’s more information about Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them: (26:21 explorations about 101 Facts about this movie, with lots of background from the original J.K. Rowling writings)

Please note that to Post a Comment below about our reviews you need to have either a Google account (which you can easily get at if you need to sign up) or other sign-in identification from the pull-down menu below before you preview or post.

If you’d rather contact Ken directly rather than leaving a comment here please use my new email at  Thanks.

By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile. Ken

P.S.  Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.



  1. 'Re-pottering' - glad you worked in a horticultural reference to Ken! Nice to hear from someone who, like me, has never felt compelled to read a Harry Potter book (although I've read The Casual Vacancy and quite enjoyed it). You and I are in the minority...we should form our own non-magic magic circle! And totally agree...there's nothing new here. Just more wizarding nonsense.

  2. Hi Jason, Thanks for your insightful comments (anyone who agrees with me is automatically insightful). If there's any circle I belong in it's a non-magical one so maybe we can meet halfway--but would be roughly Newfoundland so let's wait until global warming kicks in again. Ken